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story.lead_photo.caption As an enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau, Jerry Butler of Hot Springs spent two months knocking on strangers' doors and asking those who answered prying questions. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Jerry Butler)

Please hear my confession, for I am a shaky, silver-haired old sinner.

In August, I was sworn-in as a U.S. Census Bureau enumerator. In the course of fulfilling my duty, I violated many rules of civil discourse, common courtesy and common sense. Even though I observed while conducting the 2020 U.S. Census that courtesy and good sense are not all that common, I am pretty sure I broke at least four of the Ten Commandments and bent two others.

Enumerators are people who knock on the doors of residents who did not file their census reports online, by telephone or by mail. In Arkansas, enumerators like me contacted and counted about 40% of the state's households.

Enumerators are to the U.S. Census Bureau what brakemen are to railroads. Both are at the bottom of their organizational food chains. A brakeman does not get to drive the engine, blow the whistle or ring the bell. But if the train runs off the track, guess who catches hell?

Enumerators don't get to write the questions they ask. They don't get to add up the numbers to learn how many people live in a town, county or city. They don't get to do the calculations to see which states get more or fewer congressmen. But guess who gets doors slammed in their faces? And guess who is apt to get a dog bite in the butt?

DOOR TO DOOR

Going door to door is a task I was not qualified to perform, either by education, experience or disposition. The only work I ever do that is even remotely similar is counting birds during many Christmas Bird Counts and spring migrations. Birds don't resist being counted, but people do.

When the covid-19 pandemic struck, the bureau's plans for training the inexperienced like me went awry. There was insufficient training for enumerators in the use of their assigned electronic devices, only abbreviated explanations of systematic methods for data collection, little face-to-face instruction and no opportunities to practice by role-playing with other enumerators.

To offset these deficiencies, the bureau required enumerators to complete 40 hours of online instruction covering history, safety, policies, procedures and internal communication methods. The training also trumpeted the bureau's commitment to equal employment and diversity, and it lauded itself for its record with respect to the disabled.

Enumerators who completed the course and passed its exam would agree with schoolteachers who say online instruction is inferior to the face-to-face kind. Genuine learning finally came by trial and error, and on-the-job experience. To my thinking, it was only after enumerators had almost finished their two months of work that they were able to do their job efficiently.

That job was to knock on the doors of the homes of the unresponsive people and ask them a list of questions. If I was unsuccessful in making contact with the occupants of a residence, I was usually directed to contact a proxy who could provide the information. Most proxies were neighbors; others were relatives, caretakers or landlords.

COUNT EACH PERSON

The main question that needed asking was, "How many people lived at this address on April 1, 2020?" However, the interviews went well beyond that basic question. Enumerators had to ask for the name, gender, birth date, age, race and ethnicity of each person in the household.

I found it uncomfortable asking some women their age. One night after a long day of enumerating, I dreamed that I met a portly, well-dressed woman at her door and introduced myself as a census taker. Then I said, "Ma'm, I know it is impolite to ask a woman her age, so ugh, can you tell me how much you weigh?" I woke up before she told me.

There were other questions, too. Among them: What is your phone number? Do you own your home? Are you still paying on a mortgage? Are you married or simply living together? Is your partner of the same sex or opposite sex? Are your children biological or adopted? Are you Hispanic? If you are Hispanic, are you from Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala or some other place?

I personally found the questions unnecessarily intrusive and many of the respondents refused to answer them. Some closed the door in my face. A few who did give me their phone number flatly stated they would not answer if the bureau called.

I'VE TAKEN A PLEDGE

Something an enumerator is asked to do in the only face-to-face class he or she receives is to stand, raise their right hand and take an oath.

That oath involves pledging loyalty to the Constitution, agreeing not to steal the Census Bureau's equipment, and most importantly, never to reveal personal information gathered during the census taking. The oath also acknowledges that violations of the oath are punishable by stiff fines and imprisonments. I shall keep my oath.

Four other things were not a part of the oath, but bureau higher-ups asked enumerators to pledge to do them while conducting the census: wear a mask or face covering, maintain social distance, wear and display the official identification badge and avoid discussing political preferences. I did all those things.

The oath did not include a pledge not to criticize the Census Bureau.

◼️ Thou shall not lie.

One of the first things an enumerator is coached to tell a respondent at the door is, "This interview will take about 10 minutes." That is a lie.

I timed myself. The fastest I ever finished was 13 minutes. It usually took more time. If a household had nine residents, as did two I enumerated, the interview lasted half an hour. It's just a little white lie, but I told it over and over.

In part, these interviews took longer than promised because I have familial tremors (sometimes called essential tremors). This affliction causes my right hand to wave and shake involuntarily. The small-screen smartphone that enumerators are given to use for entering numbers and text during an interview has a tiny keyboard.

I frequently strike the wrong key, and then I make corrections, while the respondent awaits. Young people who can text on a phone at lightning speed seemed annoyed. Occasionally, they offered to enter the information for me, but my online census training strictly taught me not to surrender my phone to anyone.

I learned that if I apologized for the tremors early in an interview or cracked a little joke about my shaking, it bought me a little sympathy. ("If you think my using this phone looks foolish, you should see me trying to eat peas with a kitchen knife," I quipped.)

Tremors are not painful, and I have coped with them too many years to be overly self-conscious or embarrassed: They are part of my persona. Some people on my census route feared I was having a stroke. Some dragged up a chair for me.

No one among the hundreds I talked to was unkind, accusatory or mocking. Even though I had just lied to them about my use of their time.

The Census Bureau was not so accommodating.

I asked my first line supervisor and the person above her to provide me a larger electronic tablet with a larger screen. I am accustomed to using such an iPad to read the newspaper and work crossword puzzles. I was told that administrators above the enumerator level were issued such pads in addition to the small phones.

I made my request under the Americans with Disabilities Act for special consideration because of my disability, but it was never granted. Nor did the supervisory chain provide me a written denial or explanation. Had they complied, my work would have been faster, more accurate and more productive. It might also have qualified me for productivity-based bonuses.

I might not have been required to lie.

◼️ Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.

I grew up in a home where regular Sunday morning worship attendance was a given. As an adult 79 years old, it is a custom I continue. The coronavirus interrupted this Sunday morning habit. Just after my church went back to face-to-face meeting, the preacher tested positive for covid-19, so we stopped public worship again.

I might have gone back to church when we reopened, had not the Census Bureau tempted me with Sunday overtime and bonus pay.

Going to worship the nine Sunday mornings in August and September might have been safer for me than knocking on the doors of total strangers all Sunday afternoon, as I did. It is not the bureau's fault nor the pandemic's that I am a covetous old codger who does things I shouldn't just for money.

◼️ Thou shall not covet.

Terri Gibbs, country music star, scored a big hit a while back with "Somebody's Knockin'.'' She crooned that the Devil had "blue eyes and tight jeans." My Devil is a bureaucrat wearing a suit and tie, paying me other people's tax dollars to go around asking people questions that the government has no clear need to know. For less than 20 bucks an hour, plus bonuses, mileage and overtime, I sold my soul to that devil.

Adjusted for inflation, it is less money than I earned in my former jobs as a teacher, an electrician or a coal miner. But it is more per hour than I make these days at my gig as a freelance writer. It is a welcome boost to my so-called Social Security.

The money I made as a census worker, however, does not offset the losses the pandemic caused to my pension plan portfolio. Though it did boost my rainy day fund, I fear it was at some heavy cost to my self-esteem and integrity.

◼️ Thou shall not take the name of thy Lord God in vain.

I am not given to profanity. But working for the federal government I saw things that tempted me to swear so hard as to loosen my jaw teeth. Two cases in point will suffice to illustrate.

1) I was sent, no less than 50 times, to a nursing facility the state had closed down due to covid-19. There, I was asked to separately count people in each room. Only when I refused to go again, because it was dangerous for me, residents and caregivers, did census management handle the facility as group living quarters — as they would a prison.

2) The Field Data Capture app, "an official application of the United States government," was clunky. Two minutes after logging in to the app, my screen would go blank, requiring the re-entry of a six-digit pass code. Even technical support people confessed that the system was not working well. When getting assistance was urgent on one occasion, technical people did not call back for two days, and then they were unable to resolve the problem. (Other times they were prompt and helpful.)

CONFESSION AND REPENTANCE

When the 2030 Census rolls around, I'll be almost 90 — too close to meeting my Maker in judgment to risk yet another season of sinning. The best course for my soul now seems to be to follow up the confession I make here with sincere repentance and a solemn vow to abstain from similar transgressions. My dotage will probably prevent me from being an enumerator in 2030, even though the weakness of my character would probably allow it.

In spite of the whining and complaining you might detect in my confession, I found the job of enumerator to be a grand adventure. This brief period of employment opened a broad window into the wide range of situations under which my neighbors live. In looking through that window, I have learned much, become more connected to my countrymen and found much to admire in those who live about me.

Jerry Butler’s census enumerator badge and the screen device he used to record respondents’ answers to questions. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Jerry Butler)
Jerry Butler’s census enumerator badge and the screen device he used to record respondents’ answers to questions. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Jerry Butler)
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